When Jeff Sessions met Donald Trump: The origins of an alliance now strained – Washington Post

Could this be the end of a beautiful friendship?

It started more than a decade ago in a Senate hearing room, blossomed last spring with a presidential endorsement, and reached a high point this year when one man tapped the other for his long-awaited dream job.

But now, if some accounts are to be believed, the once unshakable bond between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump has been showing strain.

Tensions have boiled over between Sessions and Trump in recent months, as The Washington Post and other outlets have reported.

Things took a bad turn in March, less than two months into the young administration, when Sessions recused himself from the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, reportedly infuriating the president. Last week, The Post reported that the relationship had become so tense that Sessions at one point had offered to resign.

On Tuesday, Sessions is set to testify in an open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he is expected to face tough questions from lawmakers about the Russia scandal and the firing of former FBI director James B. Comey.

Though publicly Trump and Sessions have remained cordial — Sessions told the president in a cabinet meeting Monday that he was honored to serve him — the hearing could weigh heavily on their sagging alliance. Just last week, Trump vented his frustrations with the Department of Justice in an string of angry tweets.

Wind the clock back a dozen years, however, and you’ll find a senator and a business mogul who had nothing but kind things to say about one another.

The year was 2005, and Sessions, then the junior senator from Alabama, had stumbled across a news article about a planned $1.2 billion renovation of the United Nations headquarters in New York. The headline of the New York Sun’s story read, “Trump Scoffs at U.N.’s Plan For New H.Q.,” and quoted Trump, then the head of Trump Organization, saying the U.N. was wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on the project.

Sessions seized on the report, citing Trump’s remarks in a Senate floor speech that spring. The cost was “outrageous,” he said. Shortly after, he and then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) invited Trump to be their star witness at a subcommittee hearing on the U.N. renovation.

The July 2005 hearing was the first time the two men ever met in person, Sessions would later say. Seated before the senators and news cameras, Trump testified that he had constructed Trump World Tower, a mammoth residential building across the street from the U.N. headquarters, for a fraction of the anticipated cost of the renovation project.

“Anybody that says that a building of renovation is more expensive than building a new building does not know the business,” Trump told the subcommittee. He said he agreed with Sessions that the cost could come down dramatically.

He went on to discuss how he met with Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, using language that sounds prescient in 2017:

When I went to see Kofi Annan, I was actually quite excited because I thought that I could save this country, this world, everybody including myself, a lot of money just by sitting down and having a meeting. … They did not really care. It got a lot of press. I walked into the room and I sat down. I felt like a head of State. I was sitting with Kofi Annan, and a door opened, and there were literally hundreds of reporters taking my picture. I said, “What are we doing? I just want to tell you I can build a building a lot cheaper.” And that was the end of it.

To say Sessions was impressed by the testimony is an understatement. The senator praised what he called Trump’s expertise and competence as a real estate developer, and thanked him for bringing the issue to the subcommittee’s attention. If Trump could build a “brand new top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art 90-story” residential tower for $350 million, why did the U.N. need four times as much for repairs, he asked.

In closing remarks, he called Trump a “breath of fresh air for this Senate.”

“You have given us a tutorial on reconstruction and renovation and construction in big projects,” he said. “I hope people were listening, and I think the main point is you have got to know what you are doing in this city and this kind of construction project or you can be taken to the cleaners.”

“Your contributions are going to help us save money, and I believe help us have a better U.N. building, and you would not have said that if you did not believe in the institution and want it to be better,” Sessions added. “Again, I want to thank you for your courage, your willingness to speak out on an issue that a lot of people would have avoided, but you brought your expertise to bear and I believe it will help the U.N. do a better job.

After the hearing, there was an impromptu news conference. Trump, standing at a podium, fielded questions from reporters, flanked by Sessions on his right and Coburn on his left. He said he wanted to “help these great gentlemen who are working so hard to really do something with the United Nations and to spend the money more wisely.” From there, Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, stopped by Sessions’s Senate office to pose for photographs, as the Boston Globe reported.

Years passed before Sessions and Trump met publicly again, but there’s no doubt they remained kindred spirits, sharing hard-line views on immigration and criminal justice. In 2015, they held a conference call on immigration policy, as The Post reported, and around that time, then-candidate Trump started courting Sessions’s endorsement. Sessions gave it enthusiastically, one of the first sitting senators to do so. In turn, Sessions was confirmed as Trump’s attorney general in February.

All these years, Trump’s testimony in 2005 seems to have stuck with Sessions, who raved about it to The Post last spring.

“He was fabulous,” Sessions recalled. He told Yellowhammer Radio around the same time last year that Trump’s appearance was “the most impressive congressional testimony I’ve ever heard.”

On Tuesday, it will be Sessions’s turn in the hot seat. His boss will surely be listening.

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